Buried in an Ahram Online story about Egypt’s efforts to develop the restless northern Sinai region is a testament to the nation’s insistence on shared identity.
Terrorism in the region has killed Muslim and Christian alike. Part of the problem, analysts say, is that Sinai has been long neglected.
Isolated from the Egyptian mainland, tribal society has been penetrated by militants who draw on a sense of frustration with the state.
President Sisi has promised “utmost force” to eliminate terrorism. But he also recently inaugurated projects to address the economic conditions. These include pathways across and below the Suez Canal, to better link with the rest of Egypt.
Two of which bear special names.
El-Sisi also inaugurated two floating bridges in Ismailia and Qantara, which are named after Ahmed El-Mansi and Abanoub Gerges; two army personnel who were killed in Sinai in the line of duty in recent years.
As every Egyptian knows, Ahmed is a Muslim name, and Abanoub is Christian.
Dozens of security personnel have been killed fighting terrorism. I wrote recently of how casualties cross religious lines.
But to commemorate an bridge connecting Sinai to the mainland, Egypt connects its martyrs from each faith.
The nation has a long way to go to defeat sectarianism, and many may look cynically at a bridge when a church gets ransacked. Just this week a mob attacked in offense of a rumor that a nondescript, not-yet-licensed church would add a bell.
Do not unduly laud Egypt over the name commemoration; it is a far simpler task than civic education.
But neither underestimate its symbolism. Egypt would be much poorer without it.
Video of the opening of both bridges, issued by the Suez Canal Authority (Arabic only). The man on the right is from Bir al-Abd, the Sinai village that suffered the mosque attack, and interrupts the proceedings to say he hopes this accomplishment will help the blood to dry.
If the Islamic State is uprooting civilization, one response is to plant a tree.
At Palmyra in Syria, religious fanatics took an axe to the witness of generations past.
At Ismailia in Egypt, religious leaders take a shovel to secure a witness for generations future.
And by the banks of the Suez Canal, Egypt’s recently expanded national project, imams and priests both learn and demonstrate a lesson that transcends religion.
‘We want to open their eyes to see how great their country is,’ said Saleem Wassef, ‘not in terms of their Muslim or Christian heritage, but for all of us as citizens.’
Wassef is the coordinator of the ‘Imam-Priest Exchange’, a three year project run by the Egyptian Family House. Each year 35 pairs of Muslim and Christian leaders are brought together in friendship, trained to cooperate in practical expressions of national unity.
The ‘Exchange’ is supported strongly by Bishop Mouneer of the Anglican Church. Supervised by the head of the Islamic Research Council, Sheikh Muhi al-Din al-Afifi, and a leading figure in the Orthodox Church, Fr. Butros Bastorous, it urges participants to dialogue.
The Family House was created in partnership by the Azhar and Egypt’s Christian denominations shortly after the 2011 revolution, in an effort to preserve good religious relations.
Despite much trauma locally, as the whole region exploded in religious violence, Egypt stayed relatively stable.
Last month, to great celebration, Egypt opened a new waterway in the Suez Canal to permit two-way traffic, decreasing travel time and potentially doubling revenue. Funded entirely by the local investments of businessmen and farmers, Muslims and Christians, it was a moment of pride after four trying years.
On 1 September the Imam-Priest Exchange followed behind to consecrate the effort.
At the oldest church in Ismailia the imams planted three olive trees. Then at the Young Men’s Muslim Association, priests did the same.
‘It is necessary to bring our people together,’ said Wassef. ‘Planting a tree means love and prosperity, and is sign for the future that you are working for the coming generations.’
In a previous generation under then-President Mubarak, Egypt would often make a great show of national unity. Religious leaders would come together at major events and exchange what became locally known as ‘hugs and kisses’.
But many felt they were only patching over religious tensions. ‘Hugs and kisses’ would often follow an episode of violence.
So the Family House mandate is to diffuse tension and preempt violence in practical projects of great symbolism. Branches have been created in Alexandria, Asyut, and other major cities throughout the country. One of the most active is in Ismailia.
‘The Grand Imam of al-Azhar [Ahmed al-Tayyib] wants us to move from closed meetings out to the streets and the people, walking among them,’ said Sheikh Abdel Rahman Mahmoud, a leading figure in the local branch.
‘When they see so many imams and priests walking together they are amazed; they have not seen this in Egypt or elsewhere.’
Hundreds attended their public lecture. Dozens came up to them on the street, took pictures, and asked how they could participate.
Mahmoud and Fr. Surial Aziz coordinate with other imams and priests to visit up to four local schools a week, demonstrating religious unity. They are even working to open sub-branches in two of Ismailia’s larger neighborhoods.
Ismailia is a success story of the Family House vision, but for Wassef in the Imam-Priest Exchange, the visit is only one step of the process. The next day he took them to a drug rehabilitation center.
A patient gives his testimony of recovery. The director lectured on the spiritual role in healing. Wassef wants each participant to return home, find his religious opposite, and together meet the needs of their shared community.
And the Suez Canal is a reminder.
‘If imams and priests visit our national projects it will inspire their role in society as religious leaders in promoting citizenship,’ Wassef said.
‘They go back to their cities and villages and tell the story of pride in their country. Egypt is serving not only its own people, but the whole world.’
If religious unity holds in Egypt as Iraq and Syria burn, they just might.
The dynamic is changing in Egypt, but it is happening outside of Cairo. Violence and civil disobedience characterize Delta and Suez Canal cities, while police themselves go on strike throughout the nation. In fact in Port Said they were ordered of the street.
There is little to commend here, God. Surely the grievances are many, and perhaps many are just. But as protestors attack police, the police demand better weapons. Some of the latter protest against ‘Brotherhoodization’ of the police force; others to be allowed to grow their beards.
In much of Egypt life carries on, but it is as if the state is breaking. Why is the presidential palace covered in graffiti? Why are major roads shut down for hours by rowdy youth? Why is the best solution for popular anger against police abuse to stop policing a city entirely?
These are questions for the administration, God, and give them wisdom to handle their many challenges. But the issues are deeper. Egypt was a police state, and the revolution broke it. Perhaps the police are ill equipped to do their job otherwise. Perhaps freedom and human rights have entered the equation, but without experience in balancing with law and order.
If so, God, there are lessons to be learned. May they be learned quickly. Give the Ministry of the Interior a wise and strong figure to reform from within, and facilitate accountability from the outside.
But if not, God, the conspiracies speak. Are the police ignoring the president and working to undermine him? Or have they yielded their old tools to a new regime more than willing to repress? Is the counterrevolution drawing Egypt into more and more chaos to kill revolutionary ideals and garnish popular support for the return of an iron hand? Or is the Islamist idea to secure their project on the ashes of the republican system?
May these be far from the truth, God, however much they are whispered. But fix the country, though only with righteousness. Remove those who retard her, though only with justice.
Give Egypt leaders who can do this; equip the people to ensure it.
God, sponsor their work, and bring it to completion. Keep Egypt safe, secure, and free.
Egypt has just witnessed some of the fiercest clashes in the revolutionary era, as many protestors appear radicalized. There are still peaceful demonstrations, to be sure, but even these appear to be violently resisted by police. It is hard to blame the police, though, as the lines are blurred.
I missed out on the latest battles. I spent January 25 in Helwan, a city to the south of Cairo at the end of the Metro line. The Muslim Brotherhood was conducting an outreach campaign to counter-program the message of demonstrations and unrest offered in Tahrir. I planned to take the Metro downtown to see these protestors, but on the way the car stopped and sat for five minutes – at the very stop nearest our home in Maadi.
Demonstrators in Tahrir had cut the tracks, causing a backup. Rather than waiting what could be an hour or more, based on previous examples, I left and went home, seeking to catch up on the news of the day, and perhaps go down after a bit.
A minute later, before I was able to exit the station, the Metro started up again. Perhaps it was propitious I had left.
These pictures taken this morning are from my first visit back to Tahrir. The worst clashes occurred in the Suez Canal cities of Port Said, Ismailia, and Suez, where a state of emergency has been declared. It is hard to know precisely what happened anywhere – the consequence of sitting home and following news updates and Twitter bylines. But the pictures to follow give a disturbing indication of where Egypt stands at the moment.
Is this the last gasp of resistance to a new order, or a sign of worse things yet to come? Please pray for Egypt, either way.